NewYorkUniversity
LawReview

Issues

Author

Joshua D. Blank

Results

Progressive Tax Procedure

Joshua D. Blank, Ari Glogower

Abusive tax avoidance and tax evasion by high-income taxpayers pose unique threats to the tax system. These strategies undermine the tax system’s progressive features and distort its distributional burdens. Responses to this challenge generally fall within two categories: calls to increase IRS enforcement and “activity-based rules” targeting the specific strategies that enable tax avoidance and evasion by these taxpayers. Both of these responses, however, offer incomplete solutions to the problems of high-end noncompliance.

This Article presents the case for “progressive tax procedure”—means-based adjustments to the tax procedure rules for high-income taxpayers. In contrast to the activity-based rules in current law, progressive tax procedure would tailor rules to the economic circumstances of the actors rather than their activities. For example, under this approach, a high-income taxpayer would face higher tax penalty rates or longer periods where the IRS could assess tax deficiencies. Progressive tax procedure could also allow an exception for low-value tax underpayments, to avoid excessive IRS scrutiny or unduly burdensome rules for less serious offenses.

Progressive tax procedure could address the unique challenges posed by high-end tax noncompliance and equalize the effect of the tax procedure rules for taxpayers in varying economic circumstances. It could also complement the alternative approaches of increasing tax enforcement and activity-based rules while avoiding the limitations of relying exclusively on these responses.

After developing the normative case for progressive tax procedure, the Article illustrates how it could be applied in three specific areas: accuracy-related tax penalties, the reasonable cause defense, and the statute of limitations. These applications illuminate the basic design choices in implementing progressive tax procedure, including the types of rules that should be adjusted and the methods for designing these adjustments.

Corporate Shams

Joshua D. Blank, Nancy Staudt

Many people—perhaps most—want to make money and lower their taxes, but few want to unabashedly break the law. These twin desires have led to a range of strategies, such as the use of “paper corporations” and offshore tax havens, that produce sizable profits with minimal costs. The most successful and ingenious plans do not involve shady deals with corrupt third parties, but strictly adhere to the letter of the law. Yet the technically legal nature of the schemes has not deterred government lawyers from challenging them in court as “nothing more than good old-fashioned fraud.”

In this Article, we focus on government challenges to corporate financial plans—often labeled “corporate shams”—in an effort to understand how and why courts draw the line between legal and fraudulent behavior. The scholars and commentators who have investigated this question nearly all agree: Judicial decision making in this area of the law is erratic and unpredictable. We build on the extant literature with the help of a new, large dataset, and uncover important and heretofore unobserved trends. We find that courts have not produced a confusing morass of outcomes (as some have argued), but instead have generated more than a century of opinions that collectively highlight the point at which ostensibly legal planning shades into abuse and fraud. We then show how both government and corporate attorneys can exploit our empirical results and explore how these results bolster many of the normative views set forth by the scholarly and policymaking communities.